Monday, 11 April 2011

On yer bike

I remember when we first arrived in Hanoi seasoned expats telling us that whatever our intentions may be, we would soon, and inevitably, be getting around on a motorbike, just like them. I can report with vindication that 18 months later, Nathan and I do not own, nor have ever even driven, a motorbike. This is a result of one part self-righteousness and one-part inability to actually drive, but we couldn’t be happier with our situation, which is that we cycle everywhere we go. In fact, cycling is probably my number one favourite thing about living here (tied with yoghurt coffee… If I cycle to go get some yoghurt coffee then I consider the day an instant success). 

Unlike Sydney, where my cycling commute involved hideous padded bicycle shorts and an hour and 20 minute slog up hills the size of Mount Fansipan, Hanoi has absolutely the perfect dimensions for cycling. You can get almost anywhere on the Hanoi city map in around half an hour, at a speed best described as tootling. The biggest hills you’ll encounter are the exit ramps of a car park, which is lucky, because your bike probably doesn’t have gears (but it does have little flip-out stands for your backseat passenger to rest their feet on, an example of the kind of priorities in design that I thoroughly approve of).

And also unlike in Sydney, where motorists make a sport of running down cyclists just to prove the road isn’t there to share, cycling in Hanoi is actually a relatively safer transport choice. For starters, the traffic is going at about 20 kilometres an hour, and you’re going even less (see tootling, above), so in the case of a prang you merely execute an embarrassing low-impact topple. I have been rear-ended by a motorbike a couple of times, and on each occasion my bottom just boinged off the seat about two centimetres into the air, quite daintily if I do say so myself (disclaimer: this would not happen if you got rear-ended by a Hanoi bus, which I would not recommend trying. Or searching on YouTube). Compare this to a city like Sydney where the traffic might look less chaotic, but where you’re cycling in a narrow shoulder alongside cars doing 100 km/hour, and being clipped by the side mirror can trigger a neck-breaking face-plant.

In Hanoi, a cyclist is never forced onto any narrow shoulders anyway; the road is as much yours as it is anyone’s. If you want to cycle the wrong way up a one-way street three-abreast, and holding hands with the cyclist next to you, then go wild. If you encounter an obstacle, then cycle on the footpath, or just get off and carry your bicycle out of the way. And don’t worry about traffic police: as a cyclist you’re above the law as you’re obviously too poor to pay a decent bribe.

In Sydney I used to carry around a patch kit with me, which was all for show really, because I would have had no idea how to repair a puncture if I ever got one. Here, for a few thousand dong, you get a nice man by the side of the road to help you. 

The nice man will fix any problems you might have with your iron steed, from punctures to strange clunking noises when you pedal (to indicate that you are suffering from this problem, simply point to your bike and go “Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!”). From my experience, he’ll fix almost all of your problems by whacking your bike with a spanner a bit and then sending you happily on your way.

In Sydney, when I needed air in my tyres, I would faff around with the petrol station air pump, nagged by a feeling that using a pump for car tyres on bicycle tyres is one of those Things You’re Not Supposed To Do and that makes you look like a girl who doesn’t know anything about air pressure. In Hanoi, you can just pull over at any kerb, and another nice man does it for you, without inducing any insecurities at all. 

And in probably the greatest example of fairness that Vietnam has to offer, cyclists only get charged half the price that motorbike drivers do for the pumped air. If there’s one thing I love more than self-righteousness, it’s thriftiness!

The biggest complaint about bicycles here is that they’re too hot and sweaty. Well look, yes, in summer you do arrive at your destination in liquid form, but let’s be honest, you’re going to sweat in summer anyway, and really, what’s the difference between perspiring ten litres of sweat and twenty? You basically spend several months with your hair plastered against your forehead and a bad case of chafing no matter what your form of transport, so you may as well go the whole hog. And cyclists get their revenge in winter anyway, when they pedal to create their own personal heating system, while motorbike riders suffer frostbitten noses.

But the best thing about being a cycling foreigner in Hanoi is that the locals love it. They don’t want to run you down; they want to point and wave! They love that you’re wearing a helmet even though you don’t legally have to (oh those crazy foreigners always with their crazy helmets!), they love it when you stick your arm out to signal turning and hit an unsuspecting passing driver right in the head, they love it when you ring your completely pointless little bell and in the din of horns everyone ignores it, and they especially love it when you look like this:

I mean, come on, how could you not!

And so to any fresh-off-the-plane expats out there considering your Hanoi transport options, go right now to the Asama bike shop at 53C Ba Trieu, spend a hundred bucks, hop on your sweet new ride and don’t look back.  Except to wave at your admiring fans.


  1. I love the Asama plug! haha

  2. I love your blog! I'm moving to Hanoi in two weeks and it makes me smile and think things will be okay. Can't wait to get a bike now too. Just wait til I get streamers!

  3. I defy anyone to look at that picture of Nathan without smiling!

  4. love it! can just see the poor guy who got whacked with you left turn signal... really did lol!!

  5. Julianne: I should totally get commission from that Asama shop, I have sent so many customers their way. You'll be pleased to know that your Asama bike is still running like a dream in Simon's capable hands.

    Jodeska: I guarantee you that life in Hanoi on a bike with streamers will be MORE than okay. Nathan once bought a whole heap of pin wheels and attached them to a friend's bike basket, and this was also - unsurprisingly - a massive hit with the locals.

    Karen: When I showed Nathan that photo of him he said, "Wow, I really do look silly".

    Anonymous: Thank you. I think slapstick might be my forte.

  6. Hi Julianne,

    That bike of yours has been great. It's faster than a motorbike, sometimes.

    Just one minor accident in nearly one year of use, with a man driving down the wrong side of the road too fast to stop before he hit me. And that one was sorted out by a man straightening the wheel by hitting it with a couple of blocks wood.


  7. is that nathan thomas or tim rogers?

  8. What a beautiful post. Made me smile...

  9. So very different an experience from my day to day cycling in country NSW. Those cars (and trucks) are definitely going over 100 km/h on the highway. I'm glad that Nathan can fly the sartorial flag for the family - my lycra just doesn't cut it by comparison!

  10. Nathan, please pose in one of those bowler hat helmets to complete the look!

  11. Was having a stressful day, until i saw the photo of Nathan. Have been having sporadic giggling fits ever since. Liz M

  12. When I regularly rode my bike around Hanoi, just after I moved here, I quickly learned the Vietnamese word for bicycle, because nearly everyone I encountered, whether it was parking attendants or potential new landlords, invariably squealed "Xe dap!" and broke into laughter. My guess is that it was because Westerners are considered filthy rich, and the fact that I was riding a second-hand bicycle instead of a brand-new Vespa was patently ridiculous.


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